Synopsis: Government researchers and auto companies are developing a device called DADSS (Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety) that can inobtrusively test whether a person is drunk as he attempts to start his car. If so, DADDS makes the car inoperable. Experts explain how it will work and debate some of the issues surrounding its possible rollout.

Host: Reed Pence. Guests: J. T. Griffin, Chief Government Affairs Officer, Mothers Against Drunk Driving; Sarah Longwell, Managing Director, American Beverage Institute; Dr. Bud Zaouk, Program and Technical Manager, DADSS development program

Links for more information:

DADDS Anti-Drunk Driving Technology

Reed Pence: A generation or two ago, America’s view of drunk driving was a lot different than it is now. Back in 1982, 60 percent of all fatalities on the roads were alcohol-related. But we took it lightly, or we didn’t think we could do anything about it.

JT Griffin: At the time drunk driving really was a joke on late night television and in the famous scenes from Johnny Carson making fun of people drinking too much and driving.

Pence: That’s J.T. Griffin, chief government affairs officer at Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Griffin: One of the first contributions that MADD really made to the issue is we put a face with the crime and MADD really educated the public that it’s really not okay to drink and drive and that the consequences are in fact deadly. Our founder Candice Lightner really shared her story of losing her daughter with the world and I think that really humanized the issue for many.

Sarah Longwell: Well I think it’s education and I think that there’s been a concerted effort both from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, public health advocates and the hospitality industry who have all focused on, in their own specific ways, insuring that people understand that drinking to excess and then getting behind the wheel has deadly consequences.

Pence: Sarah Longwell is managing director of the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association.

Longwell: And I think that that’s had a real impact psychologically on the public. People understand now. It used to be that a cop would pull you over maybe and kinda pat you on the head and say, ‘hey don’t do that again,’ and just send you on your way. Now there are real consequences associated with drunk driving.

Pence: However, education can go only so far. Drunk driving fatalities have been cut by more than a half since 1980, but they still account for nearly a third of traffic deaths, about 10,000 a year. And especially late on Friday or Saturday nights it’s scary to think how many people are still driving drunk again and again.

Griffin: The average drunk driver will have driven drunk 80 times before they’re actually caught. So it’s largely a myth of the first time drunk driver, the person who just went out and accidentally had too many drinks and they’ve never done this and they’ll never do it again. Statistics show that most drunk drivers have done that 80 times before they’re ever caught. A lot of these people who are arrested are continuing to drink and drive and continuing to go out and do it. It’s not because law enforcement isn’t doing a good job, it’s because there’s just not enough law enforcement out there to catch all of the drunk drivers.

Pence: It’s always been a dream of groups such as MADD to be able to eliminate sobriety checkpoints on the road and other means of catching drunk drivers by making it impossible to drive drunk in the first place. They’ve placed their hopes on a technology that’s now under development. It’s called DADSS — driver alcohol detection system for safety. Its program and technical manager is Dr. Bud Zaouk.

Dr. Bud Zaouk: DADSS is a research program. It’s a collaborative effort; it’s a public/private partnership within the automotive industry and the Metro Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. We have the worlds leading automakers on board supporting this effort, a  passive non-evasive alcohol detection system.

Pence: The DADSS system would check a driver’s blood alcohol content while he’s starting the car and if he’s drunk, make the car immobile. Two systems are under consideration — a breath-based system mounted near the steering wheel, which would collect samples from normal breathing, and a touch based system, probably in the start button.  

Griffin: The technology would read the driver’s BAC through your fingertip and if your BAC is .08 or above which is the illegal limit in all 50 states then the car would be inoperable; something very similar to if you’ve ever been in the hospital or even at a physical or at the doctors office sometimes they’ll clip a little… it’s a clip that goes on your finger and it’s reading the amount of oxygen that’s in your blood. So this works in a similar way. It’s actually using a beam of light that goes into the dermis of the skin and it can read what your BAC is that way. The project is looking at incorporating that into a push button start.  It could be incorporated anywhere in the vehicle. It could go on the steering wheel, it could go on the gearshift nob if you will. It could go on something else that you as the driver touch as part of your normal driving experience.

Pence: Griffin says DADSS is like an airbag, noticeable only when it’s needed. If drivers aren’t drunk, they wouldn’t even know the system is there. Zaouk says specifications are that DADSS meets six-sigma requirements — 99.9997% accurate. But scientists aren’t anywhere close yet. DADSS is five to eight years away from being rolled out.

Zaouk: We’ve made significant progress over the past eight years and we still have a lot of progress to make, but we’ve come a long way. Our focus from day one has been on accuracy and precision of the system. We very much understand that for the system to be widely implemented in vehicles and accepted by the consumers it has to be extremely reliable. It’s got to be extremely accurate, it’s got to be extremely precise, and it’s got to be extremely fast. Less than half a second is what our requirements are for the performance specifications test. We are very close. So on the accuracy and precision, perhaps the measurements speed is where we are still challenged. We’ve made tremendous progress. We used to be in minutes, now in seconds. We have to get to less than seconds; we have to be in the milliseconds time range. As in every typical research project you start your process, you set your goals, and you go about solving all of the different challenges.

Pence: Once DADSS is ready in a few years, Griffin says it’s imagined as optional equipment –safety feature that’ll cost perhaps $200 per car.

Griffin: It’s not being designed as mandatory equipment it’s being designed as a safety feature. So it’s just like you have various safety features in your vehicle now, things like airbags, side impact airbags, anti-lock brakes, it’s another safety feature and that’s the best way to look at it. It’s not a punitive device; there’s nothing punitive about it. We would like to see it obviously in as many cars as possible. Mandatory is not what we’re looking to do with this. I think what we’re looking to do is see it become a standard safety feature.

Pence: Griffin thinks DADSS will have wide appeal. It may be an option, but he says a lot of people will be willing to pay extra to get it.

Griffin: My son is getting ready to turn eight and my daughter is getting ready to turn ten and the idea of having vehicles in the future that can’t be driven by a drunk driver, to me, I think every parent in America is going to want this in their car, because it’s another way to make sure that kids are safe at the end of the day. I think responsible adults are going to want this in their car because you don’t always know what you BAC is. If you’re a responsible adult this is another tool in the toolbox. If you go out and you do drink too much the car is actually going to stop you from making what could be a really serious choice.

Pence: Congress is considering giving DADSS a push with an infusion of nearly $50 million for research. But not everyone is in favor of DADSS technology in cars. For example, the American Beverage Institute.

Longwell: At some point you cross a line and you go just a little bit too far where instead of identifying dangerous drunk driving, the people who are out there causing fatalities on the roadway, you veer into sort of an anti-alcohol mentality where if somebody has anything to drink prior to driving you treat them like a criminal. I think as a society we have to figure out where’s that balance, where’s that line where people can drink moderately and responsibly prior to driving, but they’re certainly not dangerous, versus, you know, people who have ten drinks and get behind the wheel. There is a line that can be drawn there and we have to be careful about how we drive.

Pence: Sarah Longwell says DADSS sounds great on the surface–the car won’t run if you’re legally drunk when you try to start it. But she says the problem comes in how she believes the idea will be applied.

Longwell: If you took six shots of vodka right now and jumped in your car and lets say it had this technology on it. The car wouldn’t register you as drunk because your BAC level takes a long time to rise. It takes a while for your body to process alcohol, so you would conceivably be below the legal limit when you get in your car, but your BAC is climbing fast and will cross the threshold while you’re driving. Now, the guys developing the technology, the engineers, they know that this is a problem, that it creates a legal and liability scenario that can be hugely problematic both for them as manufacturers, as well as the car manufacturers. The head of the DADSS program has previously stated that they would have to set these very low in order to ensure that this legal and liability scenario doesn’t get created. So now we’re talking not about the cars registering whether or not somebody is drunk, but rather whether or not somebody has had anything to drink. So this technology could effectively eliminate a person’s ability to have a glass of wine with dinner or a beer at a ballgame and then drive home.

Pence: Longwell says that’s the concept of “how do we draw the line.” She says to keep car companies from liability, DADSS won’t be set at .08 BAC. It’ll be set at maybe .05 or even less. She says DADSS will inevitably target people who drink moderately and responsibly. But MADD’s Griffin disagrees.

Griffin: The auto industry is a partner in the development of this technology, so anything they design is not going to be done so in a way that it would hassle the sober driver. I think that argument is largely false. I think it’s a scare tactic and I think that, from what I know, the technology would absolutely be reliable; you won’t know it’s in your car unless you’re legally drunk.

Longwell: I don’t believe him and part of the reason is back when the engineers… We’ve been having this discussion now for a long time. I think the public is really just finding out about the DADSS technology, but we in this community that deals in traffic safety have been talking about it for a long time. And so early on the DADSS program was much more willing to be open and honest about their goals. The goal is to put it in every car, just like seatbelts and airbags, and the head of the DADSS program was on the record saying, “Yeah, it would have to be set with a safety margin.” Subsequently, when we started pointing out these problems, the mandatory nature of it and the being set below the legal limit, the folks manufacturing this in order to ensure that they continue to get their funding from Congress have basically shifted their messaging to make it more palatable to the public, so that these folks in Congress feel more comfortable supporting them and handing them money. And so now they’ve started saying that the technology will be optional and that it will absolutely be set at the .08 limit.

Pence: Zaouk, the current head of the program, insists that’s not true. What is true is the impact DADSS could have once it’s perfected.

Zaouk: It’s the best opportunity we have today to save lives. We have 10,000 fatalities a year due to drinking and driving and this the single best opportunity we have today. It’s the seatbelt of my generation where we’re hopefully going to make this next leap in saving lives in automotive safety. We’re really very proud of the progress we’ve made. We’ve focused on bringing this to the market as fast as we can. We’re focused on making it as accurate, as precise, as reliable as we possibly can. Ultimately our goal is to invent a world without drinking and driving, without drunk drivers out there.

Griffin: If DADSS could be widespread, widely used, we have the potential to save over 7,000 lives each year. We could cut traffic deaths and injuries by a third.

Pence: You can find out more about DADSS and all of our guests through links on our website, I’m Reed Pence.

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